Wheels Keep Turning

I’ve got a post-apocalyptic fare for you all to read this week. On purpose there isn’t a full explanation as to what happened. My hope is you’ll get a few minor hints and then come to your own conclusions. I think that’s kinda fun, to be honest. Anyway, the story involves several characters. There are no conversations in this one, it’s more about the events through actions than protracted dialogue meant to convey what is happening. And I think that’s enough from me other than two things; it’s about 8,800 words long and have fun!

Trudging across the sun baked surface of what remains of the world after the end, Hans is determined to continue heading north.

There is nothing left for him in the south, principally because he’s lied and stolen his way through every worthwhile corner of ‘civilization’ and stash he has managed to come across. And if his departure from the last hillbilly on steroids town hadn’t been as hasty as it was then perhaps he could have secured a vehicle of some form or another.

Regardless, Hans feels travelling on foot is the more reliable method seeing as it does not require reliance on machinery which can break down or fuel which can run out. After all, there isn’t an abundance of refined oil helpfully located at regular intervals anymore. In fact, a great deal of it was used in the immediate aftermath of the end as society took a surprisingly long while, months, to break down. When it did however the outcome was bloody, cruel and swift. Thousands lost their lives, adding to the billions who had already fallen. But that was a long time ago and this is not about the fall of humanity. No. This is about the reality of the world which remains.

Casting his green eyes about, which are barely visible under the cloth that is wrapped around Hans’ head to keep him cool from the scorching sun, the thief sees little through the narrow gap other than the same sight he has seen for… He cannot say how long to be honest other than suffice to say this view is one he has been privy too for so long that he remembers seldom else but the sun baked and cracked ground. The dirt from which, fine and rough, swirls about where the remains of civilization continue to linger or where brown and dying trees, having not already succumbed to the lick of flames, still stand at whatever angles they might.

Feeling parched to choking Hans pulls a canteen from his waist; it was hidden beneath layers of ragged and filthy cloth. He filled it… He doesn’t recall and forgets to pursue the thought to a conclusion when he pops the cap, presses the opening to his cracked lips and throws back his head to feel the warm liquid trickle onto his tongue. Its taste is blissful, and though he would love to greedily chug it he does not. After all, he cannot say how long it’ll be before he finds more of the precious liquid, as it isn’t likely you will stumble across a lake or river anymore. Seas yes, but seas are full of salt and consuming it only ever ends one way, death. Hans isn’t inclined to die. If he was he wouldn’t be where he is today. Instead, he’d have given up long ago and allowed the world to take him. Something he’s seen the remains of many a time as a thief. Personally, he doesn’t understand it, the lack of conviction and yet…

His thoughts become lost when he seals the cap back over the mouth of the canteens neck. Yet, just as he goes to stash the object back from whence it came, he trips. A series of stumbling steps follow but Hans manages to spare himself the humiliation of going to ground, only narrowly. It’s why he stops, finishes squirreling the canteen out of sight and then looks back the way he’s come, his hidden brow furrowed with deep wrinkles. Sadly, he can see no cause for what followed, other than a failing on his own part, which grates annoyingly against the man. And so he grumbles quietly while shaking his head.

When he is done with his bemoaning he turns his mind back to the task at hand, walking. Alas, with the sun continuing to rise as it is it won’t be long before the sun will be so intense that he shall be forced to seek shelter. If he had transport or a great deal more water he could risk continuing on, but he does not and so knows it is best he gets out of the sun before it has chance to severely dehydrate him.

Already, he can feel sweat gathering across his wrapped scalp, the hair of which was scrapped to almost nothing several days ago. It might be a week, he cannot recall. Time has very little meaning anymore. It is a throwback from the days before the end.

Unable to deal with the sweat soaking the cloth around his head any longer, Hans grabs at the edges of the gap through which he is looking and pulls. With ease the damp cloth opens, though Hans does not remove it from his head entirely. Rather, he simply makes the opening wide enough to reveal his heavily tanned face with its days worth of stubble, a number of small scars, deep wrinkles much like you might expect to see after leather has been left out in the sun for too long, and sweat soaked skin.

Instinctively, the thief licks at his lips tasting the dust and sweat. The ingredients mix in his mouth for the few seconds that pass prior to him swallowing.

The dust is coarse, like sandpaper, but the sweat is the real prize. It has a tang. He finds it neither pleasant nor not. Rather, it is an extra boost, a recycling of a tiny portion of what his body has been losing.

If he had a method to recycle more of it he would for his body is slick with moisture. Alas, he can do nothing about it and so with head exposed to provide marginally better cooling he turns his focus back to walking.

To be honest, he had forgotten that he was not still stood in place staring back at where he’d tripped, but he is not. That section of blasted earth he left…

Trailing off unsure of what to say next he allows his eyes to blink rapidly. The aim is to clear dust that has wafted into them due to the meagre breeze which is present. For once the thief wishes the wind were stronger. It is seldom he would ask for such a thing but this is one of those times and for a myriad of reasons. The only downside being that the dust damages your vision.

Hans noticed a good while back that his vision is not what it used to be. Thankfully, as yet it has not deteriorated enough for him to need assistance. Yet, it is inevitable such a day will come, as it comes for everyone if they survive long enough. And if they do they will go blind from the damage done. Few survive such a change. And many think it’s as though the world, Mother Nature, has engineered it so that population numbers are, since the end came, controlled.

The thief himself would not be able to say either way if that were true or not and does not care. For these are things beyond his very limited control.

Another scan of the world around some time later, it could be seconds or hours Hans cannot tell, results in him spying what he thinks is something. Still, to begin with he allows cynicism to dampen his potential joy for eyes can easily be deceived in the wasteland.

On this particular occasion however, what Hans sees is no mirage or illusion, it is real. The thief is still a good ways off, he thinks, but what he has set his eyes upon appears to be a small collection of structures.  Yet, even from here they are clearly not whole, untouched. By looks of things they may have been hit by flames. If that turns out to be correct, he will know for sure once he is closer, he would not be surprised for many buildings, millions, suffered the lash of roaring flames when woods and forests burned. They had been unable to defend against the heat of the sun without the dampening capabilities provided by driving storm clouds filled with moisture.

Hans can’t remember the last time he saw clouds, rain clouds. Those thin white, wispy things he would best describe as fluff are not too uncommon. But enormous, dark, layered clouds, they are things he has not seen in a long while.

A memory bubbles to the surface. It is of the last time he remembers seeing rain and the reaction offered in response by ‘civilised’ people; a desperate fight to gather what they could before it ended and the storm passed. Such efforts ended poorly, with people dead or worse, dying.

You might not understand how dying is worth than death but in this world it is truth. For the dead do not suffer. A quick end is merciful. Whereas to be left dying is to be left to suffer, in agony, until the world claims you. And that day when Hans last remembers rain was a day drenched in suffering. All of it had been unnecessary. But things which happen in the world as it is today are often unnecessary.

Wishing to dwell no longer on memories of events passed, the thief turns his attention back to the cluster of houses. He cannot be sure that is what they are and yet he cannot imagine them being anything else. And why they are out here he does not know. However, before the end it was not uncommon for people to live very differently to how they do today. For the most part that is because the world had been very different.

He could likely remember it if he tried but is not inclined to as studying the structures is of more importance he feels.

What he has determined is that they have indeed been touched by fire. Not licked or lashed but engulfed. Still, as unlikely as it is that anything of value will remain, he continues to head towards them.

There is a chance the ruins could offer shelter until the worst of the sun’s heat has passed.

When he reaches the quad of semi erect structures he finds he is right on the money, which is not surprising after so long spent in this life. But, far more interesting are signs of recent activity. In response to that discovery his lips turn up at the ends. The expression can’t quite be called a smile though, and with it the thief goes about what he does best, searching. After all, if someone, in any number, has been through here recently then there would have to be a reason for it. And it wouldn’t simply be for shelter, he does not think. If it were he believes things would be different. He can’t explain how as he moves through the third property ignoring the charred remains of furniture and fallen exterior wooden walls, the detritus from which is scattered about in a manner he finds…

The floor beneath him creaks. He pauses. His eyes go darting about moments prior to him dropping into a squat. A shudder runs up his spine. He does not like the idea that if anyone were watching and listening he might have alerted them, revealed himself.

If he were not so concerned about such things he would wear shoes, like most people. But he does not. Instead, Hans opts for having them wrapped in thin fabric wound tightly and secured so as not to become a hindrance to his movements. Such a configuration allows him to silently walk about as he sees fit. Yet, in the early days his feet had suffered miserably. That was until they got used to the treatment, the lack of shoes, and hardened much like leather would.

Shoulders finally dropping, Hans decides there is no one around but him. He lets out a sigh of relief, then turns his attention back toward searching. The third house provides nothing, just as the first and second had not. The fourth however is very different to the others. And once inside it the thief is sure this is what he’s been hoping for, which is why he rubs his thumb and fingers together in a manner which he always does when excited.  It’s a gesture that is similar to licking your lips, except rubbing skin upon skin does not waste precious bodily fluids.

Unaware of the habit, Hans goes about carefully examining the wide open ground floor living space of what was once a luxury mansion blackened and stained with soot but otherwise largely intact. Far more so than the other examples and with only the glass missing from the opening within which it used to be housed. It was shattered, more than likely, by the fire when it raged through many years prior to today.

None of that history is of interest to Hans however. No. He is interested in something else entirely and believes he may have found what that something might be. Still, he feels it prudent to commend whoever came through here for their efforts, even if they could have done a far better job at hiding this…

Hans pulls on a small protrusion that has been the focus of his interest for a while. For his efforts he is rewarded with a door suddenly sliding open in the floor.

The thief had not been expecting quite what transpired and leapt back at the sudden sounds which filled his ears to bursting. And when the noises finally abate his head swivels left and right for he is expecting an ambush to end his life for the racket he has caused. Marvellously, no such event transpires, and feeling danger no longer looming over him he creeps cautiously toward the opening. It is pitch black, unilluminated, save for where the light of day bleeds across the first few steps unevenly.

With no signs of danger, Hans sees little reason to pause as he descends, a step at a time, down the flight of steps, which turns left once revealing a low rumble.

His heart now is in his throat. He fears what the rumble might be. That is until he sets sight on the small generator juddering as it powers a set of lights scattered about the several metre wide and long square space that is packed to bursting with everything Hans would ever wish to find, and more mayhaps.

Standing there, motionless, the thief’s’ eyes go wide, his head just about shaking from side to side as his lips morph into a proper smile. Moments pass. The thief thinks nothing of them for he is unaware, too in awe of this discovery.

Though once he realises his dallying he explodes into frenzy, more closely examining what is stockpiled here. Then having decided the best choices for his continued success, Hans lays into pilfering said items, which he stuffs into a pack that was lying nearby.

The only thought going through his head as he undertakes the thefts is that someone must’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to accumulate all of these supplies, and yet they have left them unattended. Foolish, he declares loudly over and over in his head. He is unable to get off the thought while he continues to lay claim and stuff into the pack what should keep him going, as he continues to head north, for weeks at the very least. Hell, there is a chance some of this could last him months if he were to be frugal, not indulge, and properly ration.

The decision whether to or not however is one that is yet to be made. He sees the benefits on both sides and…

A sound reaches his ears. The thief freezes in an instant. It was undoubtedly a footstep, and at the very least one. He would know the sound anywhere for he has listened intently for much of his life for such things. After all, the best way to survive is to avoid.

Yet, you came here!

He banishes the voice from his head branding it unhelpful at this time, but with held breath continues waiting, listening. No further steps are heard by his ears. Still, he drops into a squat to present as small of a target as possible. Though, he remains in place and makes no attempts to move or turn his eyes away from the floor above his head.

As time continues to tick away there remains no sound to be heard. To anyone else that might be comforting but for Hans it is not, not in the slightest. And he could not explain why if he were asked. In fact, if anyone were to utter such a query to him at this moment he would inevitably leap out of his skin, terrified.

Remembering the stairs he descended, how he forgot them he cannot say, the thief begins to turn. After all, that is the only way down to where he is and so it would be best to check upon them.

He sees no one and is about to edge forward, ready to label himself mad, delusional, when he is grabbed from behind, hand over mouth and introduced to a knife.

The blade, silver and shiny, drives into Hans’ neck. He squeals into the hand reflexively, and as you might expect the screams go unanswered. Not that they are intelligible or anything more than muffled.

Yet, the blade soon withdraws. Blood, thick and dark, pours from the wound as a result. And Hans wonders if he might survive, have the chance to break free. Then the blade returns stabbing a little further along from where it first struck. Again the thief lets out a muffled shriek. Something he continues to do with each additional stab that follows, until he is no more and his body is limp, floppy.

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